The first book being read and passed around is Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue by David J. Bobb. As you might expect, it is a book that celebrates much of what is good and virtuous about the United States of America. And considering the people Bobb profiles — Abigail Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass, to name a few — it’s hard to argue with him.
But all of us, Americans and non-Americans alike, know that the history of the United States is far more nuanced than could ever be captured in 188 pages about a handful of people and how they embodied a single virtue.
Which is perfectly fine. It makes sense. And it’s what makes the history of the United States such a compelling prism through which to view and learn about primility.
Because any discussion about primility — as a mindset, a concept, a virtue, a movement, or whatever it means to you — is nuanced too.
How could it not be?
At its heart, primility is about people. It’s about the struggle we each have, each and every day, probably many times throughout the day, to balance the emotions of pride and humility that so often rage within us.
And if we look at the collective United States as a single entity, almost like a person, we see a nation that is often fighting the same battle — just on a much grander scale. This, I am sure, is similar to many nations throughout time, especially those that rise to the status of world power.
The primility of America
In this episode, Carlin tells the story of the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century, and the controversial (and bloody) counter-insurgency in the Philippines thereafter.
And when I say “tells the story,” I mean with all the emphasis that italics, bold, and even all caps can provide. He truly TELLS THE STORY, as only the most gifted and educated of storytellers can.
If you have listened to Hardcore History before, you know what I mean. Carlin is one of the most effective verbal storytellers I have ever heard. It is why I’ve invested four hours over the past few days to consuming this episode.
(Yes, I said four hours. For one podcast episode. And each time I had to stop listening, I couldn’t wait to resume.)
Coming into the episode, I could not have told you the first thing about Spanish-American War. Whatever I learned about it in grade school went out the window a long time ago. Now, thanks to Carlin, I can tell you a lot … though regurgitating facts about the war is not the purpose of this post.
What I found most interesting is how Carlin frames the story … because he frames it in a way that is right in our wheelhouse.
Carlin tells the story of this particular war to illustrate the two opposing sides of the American social and political psyche, two sides that have butted heads almost since our nation’s founding. They are:
- A belief in American exceptionalism and the desire to further of our own self interests
- A belief in liberty for all men and the right to self-determined government, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence
In other words …
- American pride
- American humility
And we don’t even need to go back to the Spanish-American War to see these ideals oppose each other.
Take, for example, the most recent war in Iraq. We toppled Saddam Hussein in an attempt to free the Iraqi people from his ineffective rule and to, hopefully, bring more stability to the region … yet, doesn’t that very act — invading another country, maintaining troops on the ground, and then dictating the terms of its new government — fly in the face of providing liberty and self-determination?
Don’t answer that. 🙂
It’s a purposefully loaded question. And there is no simple answer.
What’s old is new again
It’s the exact same question many in the United States were asking during the years leading into and during the Spanish-American War, and then during the occupation of the Philippines that ensued.
On one side, you have the anti-Imperialists, or Isolationists, who thought the United States should focus on matters at home and not be out conquering new colonies. Humility.
On the other side, you have the jingoists like then-Under Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt who believed America was the greatest nation with the greatest people in world history, and that she should take what she could when she could … all the while spreading liberty far and wide. Pride.
We wrestled with it back then. We wrestle with it now.
The great solution, of course, if it’s possible, is a melding of those two ideals.
There are places in the world fraught with violent tyranny, places where innocent men, women, and children need help to taste freedom. And having national pride in our ability and resources to provide this help feels like such a good thing. And can be.
Yet … what if the result is government by occupation and intimidation, rather than by the consent of those being governed? And what happens when self-interest butts up against the best interests of the indigenous population? What wins out? Is it the nature of a conquering world power to be humble and magnanimous in such cases?
Again, these are not questions with answers. These are questions that humans have been wrestling with since the beginning of organized societies. This is primility on a massive, global scale.
I have found them fascinating to think about. They will make you consider your own personal and political beliefs, and maybe even your own personal role in the global community.
So trust me on this one …
That’s why I’m making the bold move of recommending that you listen to a four-hour podcast about history. 🙂
Listen or download the mp3 here, or get it on iTunes.
And know this: you do not need any preexisting knowledge of the Spanish-American War to get into this podcast. I had zero. (I didn’t even realize the Spanish-American War was fought over Cuba!)
All you need is a love of listening to a fascinating story, an appreciation for the value of learning history, and a willingness to think about and engage with the content you’re consuming. If you have that, then it will be a worthwhile investment of your time.
And if you do listen, please come back here and comment.
There is a lot we can learn about our own daily micro-quest to balance our personal pride and humility by viewing the topic on a massive, macro scale like this.
Flickr Creative Commons image of the Spanish-American War Monument in New Orleans, LA via Corey Seeman.
Editor’s note: The link to the book at the beginning of this post is an affiliate link. This means that if you click on it and purchase the book, a small commission is paid to the site. Such natural and unobtrusive methods of monetization will allow us to continue providing free wristbands to new subscribers and new books for the Primility Library.